Water Act Modernization
Regulating Ground Water Use in Priority Areas and for Large Withdrawals
Ground water is vital for sustaining communities, industry, and agriculture. Ground water is also a source of low temperature geothermal energy. In British Columbia, ground water is generally found in
The regulation of ground water should be viewed as a subset of improving the water allocation system. Consultation to date suggests a desire to have ground water management integrated with surface water management for implementation simplicity. Regulating ground water use poses a number of possibilities including water licences or permits, well drilling authorizations, as well as conditions such as volume limits, duration, and requiring monitoring and reporting of water use.
Ground water and surface water are clearly linked in the hydrologic cycle; both are supplied by precipitation, and are often in direct hydraulic connection with each other. Many streams demonstrate a direct correlation between flows and ground water levels. Yet in British Columbia, regulation of surface water and ground water are not integrated. Often ground water provides flows to surface water and surface waters provide recharge to aquifers and they have co-dependent ecosystems (e.g., salmon and other species rely on cooler and cleaner ground water at critical times in their lifecycle).
This graph shows the correlation between surface and ground water fluctuations. Surface water data (blue) are from the Kettle River and ground water data (red) are from the Grand Forks aquifer.
Ground water is under stress from increasing ground water demands; agricultural activities over highly vulnerable aquifers; water quality impacts related to hydrocarbon production; and the growing impact of climate change, among other factors. Unregulated extraction and use or uncontrolled flow of ground water can result in wastage of water, lowered water levels in adjacent water bodies and in neighbouring wells, rise in water temperatures, water quality degradation (e.g. salt water intrusion into aquifers in coastal areas) and conflicts between water users and uses. B.C.’s ground water use has also likely contributed to a decrease in base-flow to some streams thereby affecting aquatic ecosystems and species.
Under B.C.’s aquifer classification system, 34 of the 918 classified aquifers are classified as heavily developed with high vulnerability to contamination. Many of these supply drinking water to large municipalities such as Langley, Abbotsford, and Prince George. In addition, 19 aquifers have documented regional or local quantity concerns. Most of these are in the Southern Interior, on the Gulf Islands, the east coast of Vancouver Island, and the Lower Mainland. Signs of stress on fish, fish habitat, and aquifer degradation of drinking water sources are increasing because water managers cannot currently regulate ground water extraction and use. Aquifer levels are also dropping significantly in certain areas: monitoring shows that 35% of the wells used to monitor ground water levels showed declining water levels (Ministry of Environment, 2007).
B.C. is the only jurisdiction in Canada that doesn’t regulate ground water use, even where surface water is heavily allocated; regulating extraction and use of ground water is a key to hydrologic sustainability. The Water Act modernization project provides an opportunity to better integrate surface and ground water planning, allocation, and decision making.
This diagram shows some of the different types of aquifers in a British Columbia coastal setting. Unconsolidated (sand and gravel) aquifers are coloured yellow and orange. Fractured bedrock aquifers are coloured brown and grey. This figure is used with the kind permission of the Geological Survey of Canada.
How is ground water use currently regulated?
Throughout much of the Province’s history, ground water has gone unlegislated or regulated. This situation was improved by the Drinking Water Protection Act and Water Act amendments in 2001 and the Ground Water Protection Regulation (GWPR) in 2004. The GWPR established standards for drilling, alteration, maintenance, and closure of wells, addressed well identification and required qualified well drillers and qualified well pump installers to register with the Province. Other legislation or regulations affecting ground water in B.C. include the:
- Environmental Management Act (regulates the discharge of waste to the environment, including to ground water);
- Environmental Assessment Act (requires the assessment of very large proposed ground water withdrawals to be conducted);
- Water Protection Act (prohibits bulk water removals and interbasin transfers);
- Utility Regulation Act (approves private water utility water supplies); and the,
- Drinking Water Protection Act (regulates potability of drinking water, including drinking water from wells).
However, none of these directly address on-going extraction and use of ground water.
Additional improvements to the regulatory landscape in B.C. have been under development since 2005. This work includes development of Phase two of the GWPR. Except for the Environmental Assessment Act, which requires a review of all ground water withdrawals designed to operate at a rate of 75 litres per second or more, and the GWPR, which regulates the construction of new wells; the province does not regulate, license or permit ground water extraction and use. As a result, the province, local governments, and citizens are constrained from effectively dealing with conflicts among water users and degradation of ground water quality and quantity, which can pose risks to human health and ecosystems.
What does this mean for communities in B.C.?
Unsustainable ground water use on the Gulf Islands this year meant some residents ran out of water or had to lower their pumps in their wells. Dropping aquifer levels reveal that some pumping activities are beyond sustainable levels and there is a high potential for salt water intrusion (which can harm the entire aquifer).
On Vancouver Island, a farmer became angry at his neighbour, who took too much water from his well, resulting in the farmer’s licensed supply (a spring) drying up. The farmer, despite having a water licence, was unable to water his crops and there was no recourse to stop the ground water user from affecting the spring.
British Columbians use a lot of ground water. The most recent estimates indicate that over 1 million people in the province use ground water for drinking (Nowlan, 2005). This equates to about half the population outside of Victoria and Greater Vancouver. The number of people in British Columbia that rely on ground water for drinking water ranks as the 3rd highest in Canada behind Ontario and Quebec. Furthermore, a significant percentage of ground water in British Columbia is used for industrial and agricultural purposes (Hess, 1986) and is vital to supporting the economy of the province.
The Ministry of Environment’s WELLS database can be used to infer the pattern of ground water use in British Columbia. Approximately 95% of water supply wells are for single family homes. The remaining 5% (thousands of wells) supply:
- water supply systems (i.e., community systems) ranging from small systems (e.g., churches, duplexes, Bed and Breakfast providers) to municipalities (e.g., Township of Langley);
- industrial use (e.g., pulp mills);
- agricultural use (e.g., fish hatcheries, irrigation); and,
- other non-domestic uses (e.g., open-loop geothermal or geo-exchange heating systems).
The following graph shows volumes of water and purpose of water use supplied by wells in British Columbia. Volumes and purpose of use has been inferred from the WELLS database as reporting of actual volumes and purpose of ground water use is not a regulatory requirement.
Living Water Smart states that “By 2012, government will regulate ground water use in priority areas and large ground water withdrawals”. This means regulating large ground water withdrawals province-wide (e.g., water bottling plants, municipal users, large irrigators, and large industrial users) and introducing requirements for monitoring and reporting. This also means regulating withdrawals in priority or “critical” areas. In both, individual domestic wells will be exempt in most situations (except where absolutely necessary in problem areas). Setting this course aims to apply good governance to protect ground water supplies from depletion, to protect ground water quality and ecosystem health, and to achieve economic and social well-being.
Leading thoughts and practices
The provinces of Ontario, Nova Scotia, Alberta, and Manitoba, as well as Washington State and Idaho in the US are recognised as leaders in North America with respect to their ground water allocation and permitting frameworks. Their systems have a number of common attributes that we in British Columbia can learn from:
There are few ‘pure’ allocation or permitting systems: Whether a system is based on a time priority (e.g., FITFIR) or best and highest use priority, each system type includes some characteristics of the other. For example, many FITFIR systems have exemptions for domestic use. Although domestic use is exempt from being regulated, domestic uses have been given a senior historic or constitutional water right in many jurisdictions (e.g., Washington and Idaho), and may be seen as a de facto recognition of domestic use as the highest, most basic use in a FITFIR system.
One-size fits everywhere thresholds: Some jurisdictions (including Washington and Idaho) exempt private domestic extraction and use from their ground water regulations (in some jurisdictions, exemptions also include other uses like small scale agriculture). In every case, a volume threshold is applied jurisdiction-wide to define the exemption. A threshold that applies everywhere is simple and readily understandable but does not recognize hydrogeologic differences and variability in water abundance within a jurisdiction (it may be that exemptions are low enough in other jurisdictions that there is little need to recognize hydrogeologic differences).
Similar systems for surface water and ground water: Some jurisdictions have a similar system for both surface and ground water. If a jurisdiction allocates water based on a water right system (western provinces and states), the system applies for both waters. Some experts advise that it is unwise to have surface water and ground water allocation based on different forms of water laws as it results in potentially conflicting priorities.
Priority dates for many surface water licenses generally pre-date ground water licenses: In many jurisdictions where allocation is based on a water right, many surface water rights pre-date ground water rights because historically (larger) water developments focussed on surface water sources, which were easier to access and develop. In the Snake River Plain in southern Idaho, for example, where the Snake River Plains basalt aquifer is hydraulically connected to the Snake River, a significant effort in allocating ground water involves assessing the potential for injury to more senior surface water licenses on the Snake River.
Dealing with existing ground water use that began before legislation: Many jurisdictions agree that wells that were in production before the ground water allocation or permitting system came into effect must be regulated as it is necessary to manage all the relevant water extraction and use in a basin.
Recognizing protection of in-stream flows: Other jurisdictions also recognize that surface and ground water are connected and consideration of ecosystem and in-stream flow needs is part of the assessment and allocation decision process. Many jurisdictions are grappling with establishing in-stream flow needs.
Varied public input into allocation/permitting decision: In Ontario, Washington, and Idaho, notice is posted publicly and input accepted from anyone.
Where can you learn more?
A discussion paper and supporting technical report that provides more information about regulating ground water use in priority areas and for large withdrawals will be available online shortly. We encourage you to check this site regularly for updates throughout the Water Act Modernization process and to submit your thoughts and comments via the Living Water Smart blog.
Other sources of information include:
Bruce, J.P., Cunningham, W., Freeze, A., Gillham, R., Gordon, S., Holysh, S., et al. (2009). The Sustainable Management of Ground water in Canada. Ottawa, Canada: The Canadian Council of Canadian Academies.
Christensen, R. (2007). Review of British Columbia’s Ground water Regulatory Regime: Current Practices and Options. British Columbia: Sierra Legal Defence Fund.
De Loe, R, Kreutzwiser, R.Varghese, J., & Ferreyra, C. (2007). Characterization of Water Allocation Systems in Canada, Technical Report 1. University of Guelph, Canada: Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, Guelph Water Management Group.
Nowlan, L. (2005). Buried Treasure Ground water Permitting and Pricing in Canada: Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, with case studies by Geological Survey of Canada, West Coast Environmental Law, and Sierra Legal Defence Fund.
Wei, M., D. M. Allen, A. P. Kohut, S. Grasby, K. Ronneseth, & Turner, B. (in press 2009). Understanding the Types of Aquifers in the Canadian Cordillera Hydrogeologic Region to Better Manage and Protect Ground water. Streamline Watershed Management Bulletin, FORREX Forum for Research and Extension in Natural Resources.
Fish Out of Water: Tools to Protect British Columbia’s Groundwater and Wild Salmon Watershed Watch, Secwepemc Fisheries Commission, Okanagan Nation Alliance Fisheries Dept., Northern Shuswap Tribal Council, and Nicola Tribal Assoc., April 2009
“Groundwater & Healthy Streams: it’s all connected”, Douglas, T. for Watershed Watch, November 2009
is a geological deposit, such as sand and gravel or fractured bedrock, that is sufficiently permeable and porous to yield water to wells and springs. In B.C. there are generally two distinct kinds of aquifers; unconsolidated
(e.g., sand and gravel) aquifers, and fractured bedrock aquifers.
Phase 2 addresses:
- Well siting;
- Controlling artesian flow;
- Casings and liners;
- Well development;
- Yield testing;
- Well construction reports;
- Well pump installation;
- Well maintenance; and
- Actions to minimize threats.
The WELLS database is a repository of approximately 100,000 water well records submitted voluntarily by drillers since the 1960’s (5 decades). It is estimated that the WELLS database is incomplete in that it contains only about half of the records for wells that have been drilled in B.C. The well records contain critical information such as lithology (description of sediments and bedrock encountered during drilling), ground water level, estimated well yield, and intended use of the well, but does not contain information on actual use of the well or actual volumes pumped. Despite these limitations, the WELLS database provides important insight into general patterns of ground water use, as well as fundamental information on the geologic make-up of aquifers in British Columbia.
Leading thoughts and practices are described here for the purpose of providing British Columbians with an understanding of the types of systems and processes adopted in other jurisdictions to address the issues noted above. The ideas expressed here are not necessarily those endorsed by the British Columbia Provincial Government.